VIFF 2010: Cold Fish

Cold Fish (Sono Shion, Japan) Dragons and Tigers

“This is based on a true story,” reads the opening credits. Well, they don’t so much announce as scream for attention, hacked into the screen like graffiti and punctuated with drum beats. Is it a warning? A dare? A pretense (a al Fargo)? And does is matter?

While it does make me curious to discover the reality behind the story (apparently something to do with a dog breeder more ferocious than his canines), it doesn’t really change my perspective on this seriously tweaked serial killer thriller with elements of farce, black comedy and social satire. While accurate, that description doesn’t really prepare you for this strange trip, which has a whiplash quality and yet is queasily measured and methodical, stretching out for almost 2 ½ hours that should be far too long yet somehow isn’t. The perspective is neither killer nor victim, but a meek bystander—the classic passive salaryman type—pulled into the gruesome games of death as audience, accessory and stooge, and perhaps in some twisted way a potential protégé for the veteran killer.

Japanese comedian Denden is Murata, the gregarious, seemingly amiable elder of a tropical fish entrepreneur whose grand emporium dwarfs the little fish shop owned by the passive Shamoto (Kagurazaka Megumi). Denden is commanding in the role, a force of personality and confidence who overwhelms Shamoto, played like a ghost of a man by Kagurazaka, who tries to ease tension between his angry, rebellious teenage daughter and his second wife, a woman as miserable in this half life as Shamoto is, simply by serving as a cushion between them. He absorbs the fury and the frustration and it drowns him.

Cold Fish
Cold Fish

Murata insinuates himself into Shamoto’s life when he bails out Murata’s daughter from a shoplifting charge and invites Shamoto to become his business partner, but the warning signs that something is seriously off come long before the first murder: his touchy-feely way with the teenage girls who work his shop and live in his “dormitory” (“All from troubled families,” he assures us), the curious signals from Murata’s slyly flirtatious wife, and simply the sudden control the elder Murata commands from his reluctant protégé, a man too passive to object until he’s an accomplice, blackmailed into complicity by threats against his family.

Director Sono Shion (a veteran of some pretty warped Japanese thrillers, like Suicide Circle) charts the descent with dates and times stamped on the screen and he never rushes the scenes, letting the discomfort build and the weirdness fill out the film. Murata is a man who enjoys his work and he uses each murder and clean up at an object lesson for his reluctant student, lecturing on the art of cutting up a body and disposing of the pieces while up to his elbows in flesh and bone and blood. It finally builds until Shamoto breaks, the fury he’s absorbed coming out with a vengeance. But Sono doesn’t offer some character building survival tale. This isn’t Something Wild, where the ordeal pulls out the buried strength of a man ducking life and gives him reason to live. It just corrupts and destroys here, bringing out the worst in Shamoto (including a creepy misogyny that comes pouring out in his mania) and everyone it touches. And it touches just about everyone. There’s no healing in survival here, just a new form of self destruction, and like the victims, he disappears into it. It’s hard to celebrate the film, but it is remarkably riveting with a queasy sensibility has less to do with the gory remains than the twisted psychology on display.

The 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival runs Thursday, September 30 through Friday, October 15. Visit the website for schedules and updates.